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The Best Paints for Wood Surfaces: A Guide for DIYers and Professionals

Painting wooden surfaces like furniture, cabinets, trim, and more in your home can seem like an easy task, but choosing the right type of paint is crucial for getting great results. The wrong paint could peel, crack, or leave an undesirable finish. This guide will walk you through the major factors to consider when selecting wood paint, and provide recommendations on the best paint brands and types for different wood surfaces.

How to Choose the Right Paint for Wood

There are several key considerations when deciding which paint is best for your wood painting project:

Paint Sheen

The shininess or glossiness of a paint’s finish is called its sheen. Sheen levels for wood paint include:

  • Flat/Matte – Provides a non-reflective, dull finish that highlights wood grain. Best for hiding imperfections.
  • Eggshell – Has a soft, velvety appearance. Resists yellowing and is scrubbable.
  • Satin – Offers slight shine and smooth appearance. Resists moisture, stains, and wear.
  • Semi-Gloss – Has moderate shine and is very durable and stain-resistant. Easier to clean.
  • Gloss – Provides a bright, shiny, reflective finish. Very durable and moisture-resistant.

Typically, lower sheens like flat or eggshell work best for indoor wood surfaces, while higher gloss options are better for woodwork in bathrooms, kitchens, and other high-moisture areas. The condition of the wood also impacts sheen selection. For example, higher sheens highlight imperfections in damaged wood.

Oil vs. Latex Paint

The two main types of paint for wood are oil-based alkyds and latex acrylics:

  • Oil-based/Alkyd – Penetrates wood for strong adhesion. Has a slight odor and requires mineral spirits for cleanup. Ideal for damaged or unfinished wood.
  • Latex/Acrylic – Water-based formula won’t soften existing paint layers. Cleans up with soap and water. Better for indoor, finished woods.

Oil paints often provide greater durability for outdoor wood surfaces like decks, siding, and furniture. Latex options work well for indoor trim, cabinets, and doors since they dry faster and don’t yellow over time.

Paint Finish Types

The ingredients that give paint its color, luster, and protection also impact its performance. Common finish types include:

  • Alkyd – Traditional oil-based finish that dries slowly but provides a smooth, hardwearing coat.
  • Acrylic – Water-based finish that dries quickly and resists fading, chipping, and moisture.
  • Polyurethane – Extremely durable synthetic finish that resists wear, weather, and yellowing. Requires primer.
  • Lacquer – Fast-drying solvent-based finish that produces a hard, glossy surface. Susceptible to chipping over time.

For woods exposed to heavy wear like floors and furniture, urethane or lacquer provide the most protection. Acrylic works well for painted cabinets and trim. Oil-based alkyd offers longevity for exterior applications.

Primer

Primers prep wood for painting by sealing the surface and allowing topcoats to adhere evenly. The right primer depends on the surface:

  • Bare wood – Use oil-based primers like kilz to seal in resins and tannins.
  • Pre-painted – Latex primers work well to improve adhesion and smoothness.
  • Stained wood – Oil-based sealers/primers prevent bleed-through and blocking stains.

Priming is a must for new wood, but can be skipped on pre-painted wood if the old paint is still in good condition. Always check for compatibility between primers and paint types.

Best Paints for Different Wood Surfaces

With the variety of paints on the market, it helps to match your options to the specific woods you want to cover. Here are our top recommendations:

Indoor Furniture and Cabinets

For everyday wooden surfaces like dressers, cabinets, and tables, latex paints offer the ideal balance of ease of use and durability:

  • Behr Premium Plus Interior – This enamel acrylic resin formula self-priming on most woods. Provides great flow and leveling for a smooth finish. Resists nicks, scratches, and fading.
  • Benjamin Moore Advance – Water-based alkyd paint dries hard and smooth. Excellent hide and stain resistance. Easy cleanup with soap and water.
  • Valspar Cabinet Enamel – Ultra-durable bonding primer and acrylic paint in one. Formulated to prevent yellowing. Withstands cleaning chemicals.

For a modern matte look on cabinets or furniture, Minwax’s Polycrylic Protective Finish provides a crystal clear, non-yellowing acrylic sheen.

Outdoor Wood Furniture

Outdoor woods require paints that can withstand sun, rain, and temperature swings. Oil-based enamels are best for patio and garden furniture:

  • Rust-Oleum Marine Topside Paint – This glossy alkyd enamel resists fading, chipping, and mildew. Can be applied directly over existing paint.
  • TotalBoat Gleam Marine Enamel – High-gloss urethane fortified with UV filters for sun protection. Applies smoothly and cures fully in 2-3 weeks.
  • KILZ Exterior Oil-Based Paint – Dries to a protective film that seals and beautifies exterior wood naturally resistant to mold and mildew growth.

For a semi-transparent wood stain alternative, Penofin Ultra Premium Red Label penetrates deep to protect logs, fences, and siding from moisture while showcasing the wood grain.

Decks and Outdoor Structures

Decks, pergolas, and other outdoor projects demand an exterior wood paint formulated for heavy traffic and full weathering:

  • Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Exterior Paint – Acrylic-alkyd formula with UV protection specially designed for decks and railings. Slip-resistant finish.
  • Behr Premium Semi-Transparent Deck Stain – Deep penetrating oil-based stain enhances natural wood appearance while protecting against moisture, mildew, and UV damage.
  • KILZ Exterior Siding, Fence, and Barn Paint – Dries to a mildew-resistant, rust-inhibiting matte finish. Excellent for use on rough exterior wood siding, trim, and beams.

For a traditional wood stain, Ready Seal Exterior Stain and Sealer Enhancer is an oil-based option that enhances color depth over time while protecting against water, UV rays and fungus.

Wood Trim and Doors

Trim, baseboards, window sashes, and interior doors typically require durable latex paints:

  • Benjamin Moore Regal Select Interior – 100% acrylic formula engineered for broad surface application and superior flow and leveling on trim. Resists nicks, stains, and burnishing.
  • PPG TIMELESS Interior Paint – Proprietary acrylic latex provides one coat coverage with exceptional hide and durability. Stays fresh and clean looking.
  • Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Interior Acrylic – Fast drying trim paint with velvety finish. Resin cross-linking technology provides excellent block resistance and washability.

For a classic wood finish, Minwax makes combining stains and protective polyurethane clear coats easy with their Complete 1-Step line of oil-based wood stain and sealer products.

Kitchen Cabinets and Bath Vanities

Kitchens and bathrooms demand paints that can stand up to moisture, grime, and frequent cleaning:

  • Benjamin Moore Advance Waterborne Interior Alkyd – Provides a smooth, hard finish able to withstand repeated scrubbing. Resists stains and household cleaners.
  • Sherwin-Williams Pro Industrial Multi-Surface Acrylic – Durable, fast-drying coating formulated to withstand cleaning chemicals and steam. Highly mold and mildew resistant.
  • Pratt & Lambert 38 Interior/Exterior Alkyd – Flows out to a hard, non-yellowing surface able to withstand heavy-duty use and frequent washing. Soap and water cleanup.

For refinishing rather than fully repainting, Cabinet Coat by Insl-x offers excellent adhesion and stain-blocking. Can be used over existing painted, stained, or varnished cabinets.

Painting Wood Surfaces Like a Pro

Achieving flawless, long-lasting results when painting wood requires proper preparation and application:

  • Clean Surfaces – Remove grease, grime, wax and loose paint. Fill any holes or imperfections with wood filler and sand smooth.
  • Sand Between Coats – Lightly sand painted woods before adding topcoats to improve adhesion and create an ultra-smooth finish.
  • Prime Bare Wood – Unpainted wood needs oil- or shellac-based primers to prevent bleeding. Spot prime repairs and knots.
  • Adequate Dry Time – Allow appropriate dry times between coats. Cold or humid conditions may require longer dry times.
  • Lightly Sand Before Topcoat – For a glass-like finish, do very light sanding between paint coats to remove any small debris or imperfections.
  • Use Proper Brush Type – Use high-quality synthetic or nylon/polyester brushes suited for the paint type. Certain finishes require specific brush types.
  • Maintain a Wet Edge – Keep a wet edge when painting by brushing into previously painted areas before paint dries. This prevents lap marks.

With the right prep work and painting technique, even DIYers can achieve professional-looking results on wood surfaces throughout the home.

Frequently Asked Questions About Painting Wood

Painting wood around your home for an update can sound straightforward. But there are some common questions that come up when tackling wood painting projects:

What kind of paint adheres best to wood?

Oil-based alkyd paints penetrate deeply into wood grain for superior adhesion and durability. Latex acrylics work well for painted woods but require proper priming and surface preparation for optimal adhesion.

Do you have to sand wood before painting?

Lightly sanding creates an ideal surface for paint adhesion. Always sand unfinished, bare woods before priming and painting. For previously painted wood, sand if the prior finish is compromised or has high gloss.

Should wood trim be caulked before painting?

Yes, caulking gaps and joints with a paintable latex caulk provides a smooth finish. Make sure to tool the caulk into a concave shape before it dries.

How long does it take for paint to dry on wood?

Oil-based paints may require up to 24 hours dry time between coats. Latex acrylics can be recoated in 2-4 hours. Drying times vary based on temperature, humidity, ventilation, and paint type.

What kind of primer should be used on exterior wood?

Exterior bare woods need oil-based primers that penetrate deeply. For repaints, a latex bonding primer is suitable if existing paint is in good shape. Spot prime any exposed wood.

Should you paint or stain new wood furniture?

Stain is great for showing off wood grain but doesn’t fully protect the surface. For durability and water resistance, paint is the better choice for new unfinished indoor wood furniture.

Key Takeaways on Painting Wood Surfaces

  • Consider the paint sheen, oil vs. latex choice, finish types, and primer needs when selecting a wood paint.
  • Oil-based alkyds adhere best to bare wood while latex acrylics offer easier cleanup and fast dry times.
  • Outdoor wood paint should have UV resistance and weatherproof durability.
  • Indoor wood paints need scrub resistance and stain protection for high-traffic areas.
  • Proper surface prep, adequate dry times, and following product instructions is key for long-lasting paint results on wood.

Painting wooden surfaces throughout your home can breathe new life into furniture, cabinets, doors, and architectural details. By choosing the right paint and application method for your specific wood surface, you can achieve a flawless, professional-looking finish with lasting protection and beauty.

Laura Kassovic

Laura Kassovic, a former engineer at Intel SOC, now dedicates her efforts to mentoring startups in the realms of Wearables and AI. As a co-founder of New Tech Brake, she spearheads a wireless sensing solution enterprise catering to diverse applications including product development, research, location tracking, and people monitoring, as well as asset and cargo supervision. The platform empowers developers to craft an array of innovations such as fitness trackers, temperature-monitored cargo systems, medical trial tools, smart running garments, or even straightforward transmission of unprocessed accelerometer data to cloud-based repositories.

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